Next month my 15-year-old son, Miles, starts Calabasas High, which lies wedged between the palaces of the community for which the school is named and Topanga Canyon where we live, with its erstwhile bohemians and aging hippies of whom I would probably be regarded as one or both. My niece went to the same high school and I remember some years ago driving her to the fiefdom of an 11th-grade classmate who had to himself the guest house which adjoined his parents’ mansion and was bigger than any home I’ve lived in. One of the Menendez Brothers went to Calabasas High. Sometimes I worry Miles will wonder what the hell he’s doing at this school and other times I dread he’ll fit right in.
Calabasas was where the true-life blingleaders of Sofia Coppola’s new The Bling Ring went to school before they were expelled. This exile appears to have sealed the kids’ view of themselves as outsiders while further igniting their hunger for an insider’s privilege, wealth, and any association that could be forged with a fame equal parts celebrity and utter lack of accomplishment. With stunning ease the ring robbed the homes of Lindsay Lohan, Megan Fox, an assortment of actress-models whose names no doubt are on the tip of every tongue but mine, and their favorite target, Paris Hilton, who so impressively made narcissism into a performance art. The victims were selected as much for their sense of style (sic) as for their means and inclination to indulge it. A zombie movie in all but name, The Bling Ring is a document of the new culture of vicariousness for which reality TV is at once primary source and ultimate testament; Coppola not only deliberately tests whatever loyalties we might feel for any of her characters but whether the whole notion of loyalty to people rather than brand names or social totems is outdated. As little as we empathize with the thieves, we feel less for the victims notwithstanding Rachel Bilson’s recent protests of having been violated by both the movie and the theft of jewelry she insists had more “personal” value than material. Hilton says the movie made her cry. An only marginally anarchic sense of justice supposes some of the newly trinket-challenged were due a good ransacking.
With her latest movie Coppola emerges as 21st-century cinema’s American successor to Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni. The theme that Coppola inherits from Antonioni is pervasive alienation in a dangerous and unsettled time, even as the two filmmakers also are distinguished by the ways they’re different: In the years after the human race located its capacity for nuclear self-annihilation, Antonionian disaffection was characterized by the passivity and moral lethargy of 1960’s L’Avventura, while Coppola’s post-9/11 pictures—even the one about a ditzy doomed queen during the French Revolution—capture a recession-era generation determined to turn monotony into aggression no matter how pointless it may be. In the “information” age, tedium is the new primal scream, kids (including my own) wailing “I’m bored” with the despair of the terminally ill, the sound so anguished as to stop stricken in their tracks wild animals in the nearby hills and send God hiding in His bathroom like the rest of us parents. The Bling Ring’s most remarkable scene, the burglary of Audrina Patridge’s glassy catacomb of a house, is boredom as a Joseph Cornell box, shot in profile from a distance as we watch the looters enter the house and dart from room to room and floor to floor, as distracted by their own mania as by whatever they might plunder, before the rise of sirens in the background sends them scurrying back into the night.
Forty-some years ago Antonioni blew up this house or one awfully like it, albeit a hundred miles away in the middle of the Mojave. Its detonation was the conclusion of Zabriskie Point in which—following Blow-Up, his 1966 international smash set in Swinging London—the director took on counter-culture America, with results considered so disastrous at the time that it was years before anyone noticed his next feature, The Passenger, was as good as anything he ever did. Over the years Zabriskie Point’s reputation has risen (there really was no other direction it could go), and though the compositionally static nature that exemplifies Antonioni’s earlier films was at odds with the American energy and tumult that were ostensibly its subject, Zabriskie Point most clearly is the touchstone for Coppola’s work, including The Bling Ring, her best picture since 2003’s Lost in Translation. The emptiness of the beauty in Coppola’s movies is part of the point while at the same time never being so heavy-handed as to deny the allure; and while it would be a stretch to suggest Coppola has affection for her clueless bandits, she doesn’t condescend to them either. Coppola’s determined neutrality is not only an aesthetic stance but an ethical one, which is to also acknowledge that when my son gets around to seeing it, The Bling Ring may not entirely be the cautionary tale I would hope.
The Bling Ring is an observation rather than the indictment Coppola trusts us to make for ourselves. Antonioni’s sense of ennui is more profound but Coppola’s is better perceived, and heretical as it is to say—given Antonioni’s deserved stature as one of cinema’s great filmmakers, and given that Coppola still has a ways to go—nonetheless he couldn’t have improved on her movie though she almost certainly would improve on his.